MPs voted on Tuesday against May’s amended Brexit deal by 391 to 242 as her last-minute talks with EU chiefs on Monday to assuage her critics’ concerns ultimately proved fruitless.
The vote puts the world’s fifth largest economy in uncharted territory with no obvious way forward: exiting the EU without a deal, delaying the March 29 divorce date, a snap election, or even another referendum are all now possible.
May might even try a third time to get parliamentary support in the hope that hardline eurosceptic MPs in her Conservative Party, the most vocal critics of her withdrawal treaty, might change their minds if it becomes more likely that Britain might stay in the EU after all.
While she lost, the margin of defeat was smaller than the record 230-vote loss her deal suffered in January.
“If this vote is not passed tonight, if this deal is not passed, then Brexit could be lost,” a hoarse-voiced May told MPs before her deal was defeated on Tuesday night.
MPs are now due to vote on Wednesday on whether Britain should exit the world’s biggest trading bloc without a deal, a scenario that business leaders warn would bring chaos to markets and supply chains, and other critics say could cause shortages of food and medicines.
Supporters of Brexit argue that, while a “no-deal” divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it would allow the United Kingdom to thrive and forge beneficial trade deals across the world.
However, parliament is expected firmly to reject a “no-deal” Brexit as well, so on Thursday MPs would then vote on whether government should request a delay to the leaving date to allow further talks.
Both May and the EU have already ruled out any other changes to the deal, struck after two-and-a-half years of tortuous negotiations.
“There will be no third chance,” European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday.
“There will be no further interpretations of the interpretations, no further assurances of the reassurances if the ‘meaningful vote’ tomorrow fails.”
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